THE NEW HEROINE OF HARMONY: ‘I want Belfast to be an ever more inclusive, diverse and kinder place’

Lord Mayor Kate Nicholl talks to JOANNE SAVAGE about growing up in Zimbabwe, making the capital work for everyone, prioritising the voices of young people and the struggle to combat societal division

Saturday, 19th June 2021, 8:00 am
Force for change: Alliance Cllr Kate Nicholl is Belfast's new Lord Mayor at just 33
Force for change: Alliance Cllr Kate Nicholl is Belfast's new Lord Mayor at just 33

Belfast’s new first citizen laughs when she tells me about the heavy stone-weight of the mayoral chain, which almost makes her feel she’s about to fall over when she puts it on.

“At engagements and council meetings I am almost about to topple over wearing this, but I will remain upright and I will take on this responsibility at full throttle because I am determined to make Belfast a kinder, more inclusive and compassionate place that can work for everyone,” says the hyper driven 33-year-old mum of one, who was born in Zimbabwe and returned to her father’s native Northern Ireland in 2000 at the age of 12.

The marketing executive who began her political career as a researcher for south Belfast MLA Anna Lo, and was co-opted onto Belfast City Council in 2019, grew up playing in the rust red dirt tracks of what she describes as an amazing and inspiring African country, where the fragrant smell of the jacaranda trees with their brilliant purple-blue flowers lined the roads, the people were ‘laid-back, wonderful’ and the sky seemed so much higher in her memory, an azure promontory blazing with the pitiless heat of the sun.

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Kate with her husband Fergal and son Cian, 18 months, at her inauguration

Nicholl, whose father is from Co Down, is the daughter of “two hippies of the 1960s who met in London but probably the details of their first meeting are a bit hazy!” Her dad is an artist, her mother a writer, and Kate is one of three children resulting from their “whirlwind” romance that led to 25 years of marital bliss before the couple divorced.

Her mother grew up in Cape Town during the hell that was apartheid in South Africa, (her grandparents were political activists righting for an end to racial disunion), a situation some have studied in comparison with the Troubles and the sectarian segregation that prevailed; in South Africa black and white were so divided in ways not dissimilar to the divisions between those of orange and green persuasions here in Northern Ireland.

The family moved from London to Northern Ireland to Zimbabwe, this “vivid, vibrant, wonderful country I remember as being full of so many colours and smells and amazing people” but when political dysfunction and corruption there began to topple over into violence during the 1990s, the Nicholls moved back to Ulster and Kate went on to be a diligent student at Methodist College in South Belfast, where she describes herself as being something of a square, although she sounds anything but.

“In Zimbabwe being white meant you had text-book privilege and we were lucky to be able to leave as things in the country became more fractious, but it is ironic that we moved there to escape both unrest in Northern Ireland and apartheid in South Africa only to end up moving again because of political instability.”

Kate in the chamber at Belfast City Council with her son Cian

Kate’s upbringing has blessed her with a broader vision of inclusion and since she was inaugurated she has made the lodestar of her mission one of celebrating a city she sees as full of possibility, wonder and a meeting point or melting pot of different cultures, races and religions. It’s an inspiring vision of a polyglot city where people of so many stripes have decided to set up home, and at every turn she sees the city as a place ripe with cosmopolitan, multi-cultural richness.

Her theme is ‘Our Belfast’ and already she has done much to display her commitment to representing everyone; she recently retweeted a comment from former PUP leader Dawn Purvis that outlined how the city must work for everyone because, as Dawn so eloquently put it: ‘I am going nowhere without you and you are going nowhere without me. We have to work together to achieve peace and stability’. She has met with refugees from Palestine, Eritrea, Tibet, and elsewhere who have chosen Belfast as their new home and champions their cause; so too has she lauded the success of Antrim GAA and this week embarked on a ration challenge for Concern UK that will see her live on the same rations for a week as a Syrian refugee in Jordan. Being eco-conscious she has taken on a challenge to promote public transport by availing of Translink buses to go into the city centre twice a week, leaving her “little munchkin” 18-month-old son Cian off to creche on the way. And she stands with Naomi Long on the issue of the DUP’s reluctance to sign off on legislation for an Irish language act believing that politicians must keep their word if we are to be able to believe what they say, stressing “how essential it is for politicians to keep their word”.

Nicholl is determined to show ratepayers that Belfast City Council is about so much more than addressing dog fouling or managing bin collections, what she wants to display during what will be undoubtedly a hectic year of engagements is that she can and will work for a better Belfast for everyone, with a particular emphasis on the voices of children and young people - the shining stars who herald the future.

Already she has been to Fleming Fulton to more deeply understand the difficulties faced by disabled young ones, and wherever possible she is determined to give them a voice by encouraging them to write to her about the problems affecting them from mental health challenges to the manifold ways they have been impacted by Covid, and she intends to read their letters at council meetings in order to put the next generation front and centre.

Kate aged approx 7 in Marondera, Zimbabwe where she lived until 2000

‘How I met my man by chance in a Belfast pub’

Kate met her now accountant husband Fergal Sherry after a chance meeting in popular Belfast bar The Duke of York.

She laughs now at how serendipity led to lasting love.

“I had been out for a drink with a friend there and she wanted a selfie. There was a group of guys standing next to us and she asked me to get one of them to take the picture. I tapped this guy on the shoulder and he took some photos of us and then gave me the phone back, and when he handed it back he said, ‘Oh, you’re Kate Nicholl

Kate enjoying a day out with her family at Killough

“It turned out we were already following each other on Twitter and had had one or two arguments about things. I fancied him right away. And because he was a footballer (not professional though) he was always in training and it took a couple of months before I met him in the Duke of York again. He’s very clever, very funny, and he will keep me grounded. I value his advice because he never just says things to make me happy, he is always very straight and direct in saying what he thinks. “When you get a compliment it is really meaningful.”

‘We need to focus on what unites rather than what divides us’

When Kate first arrived at the very grand Mayoral offices at City Hall, which come with a parlour, study and dressing room lined with wood that was used to build the Titanic, she admits she was somewhat daunted, but is quickly rising to the challenge. She is saddened by the historical divide here, and is inspired by the principles of the Alliance Party of which she is now a foremost member, because it is predicated upon the discovery and celebration of common ground: “I think that we have to face reality that division does still exist in our society. But that should be a motivation for us to build a better, more united dispensation. I think that rather than focusing on our divisions, as some media outlets do just to get more clicks or what have you, we need to focus on our similarities. Belfast is often defined as divided but that is not the full picture. We are a diverse, rich, vibrant place and if you look at how people worked together battling Covid there is a profound sense of community and a real sense of all of us - orange, green or other - being in this together because it is bigger than all of our divisions and in overcoming this we absolutely need to and must work together.”

She adds:“Most people live with compassion, share this sense of community with others and just want to be able to get on with their lives and get along with their neighbours. I want to use my year to showcase all that is good in this city and try to shift that narrative of division. I am very proud to live in Belfast, I am so proud that this is my home and I just want everyone to feel the same way, you know?”

She talks of the incredible “mum guilt” she struggles with in juggling the roles of Mayor with her devotion to her “boisterous, playful, fun, little terror” of a son, and feels the hardest part of her tenure will be time spent away from him.

Kate also addresses the predominant negativity and scrutiny women in politics are subject to online and how this must change: “I get creepy messages on Facebook and I don’t even blink anymore because that has just become the norm. It is so much harder for women in politics because of the way we are scrutinised and judged on our appearance or a lot of the time undermined by men who feel inadequate. I think political parties need to do more to get women elected. If only we could reach a point where political power was disseminated in a 50-50 way so that women in politics is no longer this anomalous thing. I also think it is so important that we all call out misogynistic abuse wherever we encounter it, and especially online trolling which is simply unacceptable.”

Q&A ‘I think life is about trying to make a difference if you can’

Tell us about your earliest childhood memories?

Playing in the bush with my friend and making mud baths with our dolls. I remember, the heat, smells, sounds, being in the red dirt, underneath the hot sun.

School days - the happiest of your life?

Not the happiest, my life is happier now. But I excelled at English, art, drama -  those were my favourites. I was never in trouble because I am very square.

Your ideal way to spend a day off outside of lockdown restrictions?

In the park with my son Cian (1) and my husband, in the sunshine, and getting a good breakfast in General Merchant’s on the Ormeau Road. My favourite was the fried egg with chorizo which they took off the menu, much to my disappointment. I may write to them as Lord Mayor and get them to put that dish back on the menu!

Who in your life makes you laugh the most?

Fergal, my husband. He has that dry, wry humour that always gets me.

Who is your best friend?

My sister Ciara. We love to drink wine together and eat nice food. 

Who would you invite to a dream dinner party if you could invite absolutely anyone from history?

I would have Nelson Mandela to give me some political advice and advice about statesmanship. Then, Oscar Wilde, because he would have really great stories and sparkling wit to entertain everyone. And then Angela Davis too.

What would you serve them to eat?

I would make a prawn risotto to start and then a bobotie, a South African dish which most people think sounds disgusting but it’s actually delicious in my opinion. It’s curried meatloaf and it has a baked egg custard over the top and you eat it with banana and coconut and rice. Nelson would enjoy it because I’m sure he’s eaten it lots of times.

What libations would there be?

South African wine and then for dessert homemade ice cream.

What kind of music do you like to unwind to?

I listen to a lot of Taylor Swift but I grew up listening to a lot of African music which I still really appreciate - it has a lot of energy. There’s a band called Ladysmith Black Mambazo who are great - I saw them as a child and will occasionally put them on in the background when I’m cooking. Then, Miriam Makeba is also wonderful.

Your favourite book?

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  It’s set in the 1950s from the perspective of five different women. They have this awful father. They have moved to Africa because he is a missionary and it is really about how they navigate their lives. They are strong women and it’s a wonderful read.

My favourite film?

Sleepless in Seattle with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It’ brilliant and I must have seen it about 20,000 times now. You’ve Got Mail is a close second.

Can you describe yourself in three words?

Smiley, tall and driven.

Love is...Everything.

The meaning of life is...To do good and make a difference if you can.